Life at Theatre Royal: A Novella

It has been flippin ages since I wrote one of these things! Work has been slightly more hectic than anticipated, and as I’ve got more settled I’ve started actually socialising! This has all been pretty great for me personally, but it has meant this lil thing has fallen by the wayside. From now on I’m going to be more realistic about how often I can write – I think monthly will be the new goal. I want this to stay something I enjoy, rather than something I stress about not having done.

As it’s been ages since I updated I’m once again in the position of having far too much to say. If I wrote about every aspect of work I’d enjoyed in the last month and a half I’d be writing a novel (probably more of a novella, but still, far more than anyone wants from a blog post). So here’s the cliff notes version of my work life.

Way back in April I got the chance to help out on a fantastic show called Brainstorm. It was performed in The Drum by TRP’s Young Company. Aged 12-16, I was amazed by how much professionalism was demonstrated by the performers. The show was also largely written by the cast, with their own stories woven into an existing frame of a script. I think it made for a really affecting piece of theatre that appealed to and reflected young people. It was incredibly personal for the cast, whilst still resonating with everyone who saw it. And, most importantly, the cast seemed to be genuinely enjoying the experience of acting, whether or not they’d had any engagement with theatre prior to being cast. It was a brilliant learning experience for me too. I got to see how rehearsals vary when young people are involved, I sat in on the whole of a tech rehearsal, I saw how get ins work, I assisted with a get out. There were some props related issues that only came to light in production week. It was so useful to my learning to see how these things are dealt with and how theatre problems are solved under time pressure. I assisted with some stage management and was backstage for every show of the run. Despite my small involvement, I really felt like I’d contributed to the show. I had so much fun and learned so much. It made me realise how much I love the more hands on elements of my job. It was great to work with such a skilled and friendly team. I’ll be acting as deputy stage manager for the next Young Company show and I couldn’t be more excited!

Following Brainstorm I was given the chance to shadow TRP’s sound technicians for the get in of This House. Initially it was super daunting, there’s nothing more awkward than standing watching everyone transport very heavy fly cases while you’re doing nowt (this wasn’t laziness, I’d been told I shouldn’t do any of the unpacking – too dangerous for a newbie). I also managed to get myself lost on a couple of occasions. I’d been sent on what should’ve been like 2 minute errands. Both times I took what I thought was a short cut and very much wasn’t (I really don’t know the Lyric that well, I’ve spent most of my time in the Drum). It was all a bit cringe tbh. But, despite my sometimes embarrassing lack of knowledge, it was still a really useful day. I learned a lot more about how the tech side of the theatre functions, I learned how complicated making a show sound good can actually be and by the end of the day I managed to get a cue light wired up! Which I’m sure is a very easy task, but I was still pleased. I also sort of dealt with my vertigo. A lot of tech work occurs at height, so I ended up just pushing through and dealing with it. I’m hoping to spend a little more time shadowing the tech team in future because it was fun (even when I made it awkward, classic me), plus I figure I should make the most of being surrounded by expertise while I’m here.

Along with all the opportunities at Theatre Royal, the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries scheme offers development and assistance outside of my job. Part of this is the mentor scheme. We’re encouraged to seek out a mentor who will offer us advice and help us with any areas we are particularly struggling with. Mine is Roxanne Peak-Payne, the producer at Clod Ensemble. Roxanne has primarily been assisting me with my ability to network, as it is a major part of a producer’s job, and something I have no experience with. So it made sense that our first meeting was at a networking event! A couple of hours before the event we met to discuss my progress, what I was interested in and what I hope to get out of the year. On the basis of that discussion, we decided how I should approach the event. It was organised by the New British Music Theatre network, which meant I got to interact with artists, theatre makers, musicians and producers from completely different backgrounds to what I’m used to. It really pushed my boundaries and I think helped me to develop a little more professional confidence.

Run-down of other cool stuff I’ve done: Following a meeting with Bonnie (Executive Director of The Wrong Crowd, TRP’s resident company) I was able to sit in on one of their R+D sessions. It was fascinating to see how a show develops, they came up with so many ideas even in the couple of hours I spent with them. I’ve continued with office based administration tasks and sorting through our script archives, I’ve submitted some of our plays to the British Library’s modern play scripts archive, I’ve chosen plays to see on the Jerwood cohort’s trip to Avignon and generally gotten more settled into my role. I went to a feminist performance night with some colleagues and experienced a little more of Plymouth’s cultural scene. I’ve also made some more plans for the rest of the year here – it’s now been confirmed that I’ll be offering production management assistance to our Playhouse project (primary schools perform plays written by major playwrights exclusively for that purpose and they get to perform in the Drum!), I will be production manager for this year’s LAB company summer show, and I’ll get to be deputy stage manager for a show! All very exciting and all hopefully things that will allow me to develop valuable skills. Not work related, but I also went to a comedy festival in Wales and had THE BEST time. It was just the most fun. A gorgeous town, fantastic shows, incredible weather, good company and only two incidents of drunkenly making a fool of myself (both did happen to be in front of a comedian I admire, trying not to relive that cringe too often).

My goals in my previous posts were to be more confident and efficient, and to do a better job of keeping this blog updated. The blog thing, clearly, hasn’t happened. I think from now on I’ll aim to write brief pieces on shows seen and a monthly work update. That way I’m still giving myself a nice track record of everything I’m achieving this year, but it doesn’t become a chore that I beat myself up over not completing. Fortnightly was a tad ambitious, particularly given that it would be on top of all the shows I’m seeing/writing about.

In terms of confidence and efficiency, I really can’t gauge it. They’re pretty broad and unquantifiable terms – kind of the opposite of what a goal should be. I’d like to think I’m more confident! I certainly feel it, which I reckon I can take as a win. I also definitely met one of my more specific efficiency goals – I no longer spend aaaages agonising over what to write in emails. I just send those bad boys right out these days. Well, I still take more care than most, but it’s a big improvement on how I used to be.

Goals for the next month: First off, I’m going to be a bit more specific this time! ‘Be more confident’ is a poorly thought out goal really, even if it is something I’m striving for. So, specific goals: on the advice of my mentor I’m aiming to reach out to a local creative, someone I don’t know yet, and ask to meet them for coffee. Hopefully non-creepily! This will help me with my networking skills but also (hopefully) mean I meet someone interesting and get to learn something new. I also plan to have finished sorting out the script archives in the office. It’s been a mammoth task but the end is in sight.

The issues of confidence and efficiency will remain ‘work in progress’ rather than individual goals – I feel like both of those are going to be lifelong developments for someone as awkward as me.

Man, I really thought this was going to be a quick update! Brevity will never be my bag.

The Band

The Band by Tim Firth – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I have a lot of feelings about The Band. So I’ll start with the positives. The production values are high, all of the staging looks incredible and there’s some pretty powerful pyrotechnics to appreciate. The cast are very capable performers and crowds around me all seemed to be having the time of their lives. Similar to Jersey Boys, it’s a play that allows people to engage with theatre through something they’re already familiar with. The storyline was decent as well, far better than some other jukebox musicals I’ve seen.

That’s the good stuff. And I did have a good time watching The Band, there were just a few elements of it that sat very uneasy with me. For instance, there is a lot of fat jokes. Like, too many. I’m aware that, being fat myself, I tend to be more sensitive to this sort of thing than most people are. That said, I still think that it was lazy and cheap writing. The Band features characters who are working class, older female characters, characters who are fat, characters who are gay. It should have been a representational slam dunk. But they kind of fucked it, as far as I am concerned. They had a real opportunity to offer some positive representation for people who very rarely see themselves reflected onstage. There were some characters for whom this was achieved, for instance the presentation of working class people was positive. I just can’t look past those fat jokes. They happened so often and were usually centred around ‘lol, fat people like to eat’ or just straight up ‘lol, look, they’re not slim’. Basically the kind of comments that school bullies have been peddling for years. Seriously Firth? That was the best you could come up with? Having a less than slim character doesn’t need to be a plot point to address, it doesn’t have to be their only character trait. Which for one of the slightly less slim characters, it wasn’t. However, for another, we learned essentially nothing about her life except that she used to be slim and then comfort ate her way to fatness. So predictable, so dull. Not all fat people are fat cos they’re sad, FYI guys. Many of the more cruel jokes are uttered by that character herself, seemingly to make the laughter ok. I don’t feel like that’s good enough. If I were to suddenly start making loads of sexist jokes that wouldn’t be empowerment, the fact that I’m part of the marginalised group doesn’t make it ok if I am feeding into toxic ideals that other people already hold – it’s hindering the cause and my being female wouldn’t change that. Same here re: fat jokes. The jokes were not made to question the idea that fat bodies are inherently inferior or funny. It wasn’t some form of smart satire to question beliefs. It stuck very much to the status quo. At one point the character talks about how she became fat. It’s played for pathos little else. The jokes continue, except the other characters decide they won’t make them anymore (she can belittle herself, they don’t need to). There’s no character development except her now deciding to go on a diet (she’s slimmer of the week now guys!). The final scene involves one character making a fat joke, and our bigger character excusing this because it means she can then make jokes about the other character being a lesbian. What?! I don’t understand what point that is supposed to be making. Sure, it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself and not take life too seriously, I’m just not sure these are the traits to be making that point with. Particularly when numerous people laughing at these jokes are very much laughing AT and not WITH.

It was super frustrating for me because the rest of the musical was great, far better than I was expecting it to be. It should have been a fun night of nostalgia but I left feeling pretty mopey really. For many, these jokes will have been a tiny aspect of the play that had little impact on the rest of the story. Which is feel is kind of the problem, it normalises it. I feel that the writers could have done so much better. The cast were really talented, this could have been a great show and a really positive thing for a lot of people. I’m not angry lads, I’m disappointed. And I do mean lads there, it’s another all male creative team presenting female experience.

This became a huge kill joy rant, apologies! I’m aware that a lot of people saw this show and had a really lovely night out and I’m pleased for them. There was a lot of talent involved here and a lot about the production that is positive and worthy of admiration. I found it very difficult to appreciate that at the time though, being somewhat blindsided by the aforementioned elements.

This House

This House by James Graham – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Following a run at the National Theatre, This House is currently touring the UK. The play marks something of a homecoming for Theatre Royal as a several of James Graham’s earlier plays were staged here, helping him to develop as a writer. It’s something we’re all very proud of so This House was a pretty big deal.

It’s a great play too. A funny and engaging look at our country’s political system, told through the lens of the years leading up to Thatcher’s rise. The play features live music, with the band reflecting the changes of era. Some members of the audience were sat onstage, forming a crew of back benchers. This added an extra level of unpredictability and fun to proceedings – though it was rare they were interacted with. I didn’t always know who the MPs were, but knowledge of the British political history isn’t essential to understanding the play. The story is clearly told and interesting without it, even if there were a few moments were most of the audience were chuckling at remarks I hadn’t registered as funny.

I don’t have much insightful to add tbh! Suffice to say that it’s good and you should see it if you can. It has a guy from The Bill in it! And a guy from little remembered T4 show As If!

The Believers Are But Brothers

The Believers Are But Brothers by Jaavad Alipoor – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Jaavad Alipoor explores extremism in its many forms and how the internet becomes a breeding ground for radicalisation. The play makes pertinent points about the ability of the online world to become a place of solace for those struggling with day to day life, along with how that can be exploited. There is the unusual addition of a Whatsapp group that the whole audience is added to (with people being neighbourly and sharing their screens for those without Whatsapp). It allows Alipoor to communicate with the audience throughout the show, placing us firmly within that online world. The audience builds up a little community, which is fun. There are also violent interjections direct to your phone that allows for a visceral insight into how online abuse can feel.

The play is a fairly intense viewing experience and felt particularly resonant now things like the incel community are becoming part of mainstream consciousness. It’s not always a fun experience but it is definitely worth your time. Alipoor is a skilled performer, presenting an engaging story in an interesting and unusual form.

Education, Education, Education

Education, Education, Education devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

As with Whey Down South, I saw this play far too long ago to write a post that does it justice. But I’ve said I’ll write about everything I see this year, so you’ll have to bear with. I will uphold my promises, dammit!

Anyway, Education, Education, Education is great. It’s a smart commentary on the impact of education systems on young lives, and in turn the impact of a country’s political environment upon schools. Some scenes are heartbreakingly familiar but it’s not short on laughs either. The music and dancing add fun to the piece, as well as making it properly nostalgic. If you’re at an age where Tamagotchi’s were a big part of your school life this play will definitely resonate with you. Scratch that, if you ever went to school you’ll enjoy this play. It’s really good.

See, told you I wouldn’t do it justice. Have some Lyn Gardner instead! https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/aug/17/education-education-education-review-wardrobe-ensemble-pleasance-edinburgh

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

I don’t really have much to say about Jersey Boys. I enjoyed the show and had a fun evening, but it’s not a play that requires much thought beyond its surface. It does exactly what you’d expect a big budget jukebox musical to do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone needs a night of escapism every now and again. Jersey Boys brought huge crowds to Theatre Royal, many of whom very rarely (if ever) attend the theatre. It’s getting people to engage with the arts through something they’re already familiar with, and I’m here for it.

It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re after a fun night out. The cast are great, it’s a slick and impressive production, and the songs are all certified bangers. Little ashamed to admit that I thought Beggin’ was a Madcon original – genuinely no idea the Four Seasons did it first. The more you know! I also really enjoyed finding out that Joe Pesci helped create the Four Seasons. Folk sat next to me were shocked to see someone so young in the crowd, so we ended up having a nice chat about why I was there. Turns out they were also Brummies! One of them sang very loudly throughout; he was so into those tunes. I was loving it, it’s rare you see someone at a theatre so unabashedly havin’ it large. My aisle mates weren’t all as on board but the band were playing loud enough for them to still hear the performers – as far as I’m aware no complaints were made.

All in all, a very good time!

Whey Down South

Whey Down South devised by Sam Parker and Alex Robins – The LAB, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Full disclosure: I have left writing this latest batch of blogs far, far too late. I only have hazy memories to draw on here, having seen it well over a month ago. So all of my opinions are super vague – I’d suggest seeking out an actual review if you want a proper sense of what I mean!

Whey Down South was devised by one of Theatre Royal’s LAB companies – a scheme that puts together a group of artists, nurtures their talent and aims to create a company. The Narwhal Ensemble are definitely one of the scheme’s success stories. They seem to fit together perfectly, creating a sweet tale that is both routed in locality and fairly universal in theme. From what I remember, it’s a story about the impact of modernity on rural communities and how friendships change as we grow older and forge new paths. The piece features songs that suit its tone perfectly. There was some storytelling via the medium of milk and cups that I didn’t always fully get, but that was the only flaw I found. I really enjoyed the play and can’t wait to see what they come up with next.